THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL
Jan. 16: Hyde Summation
Saturday, January 16, 1999
Text of closing remarks by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) to the Senate during the impeachment trial of President Clinton, as transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House and transmitted by the Associated Press:
Mr. Chief Justice, counsel for the president, distinguished members of the Senate, 139 years ago -- 136 years ago at a small military cemetery in Pennsylvania, one of Illinois' most illustrious sons asked a haunting question: Whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure.
America is an experiment never finished. It's a work in progress. And so that question has to be answered by each generation for itself just as we will have to answer whether this nation can long endure.
This controversy began with the fact that the president of the United States took an oath to tell the truth in his testimony before the grand jury, just as he had on two prior occasions, sworn a solemn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.
One of the most memorable aspects of this entire proceeding was the solemn occasion wherein every senator in this chamber took an oath to do impartial justice under the Constitution. But I must say, despite massive and relentless efforts to change the subject, the case before you, Senators, is not about sexual misconduct, infidelity, adultery. Those are private acts and are none of our business.
It's not even a question of lying about sex. The matter before this body is a question of lying under oath. This is a public act. The matter before you is a question of the willful, premeditated, deliberate corruption of the nation's system of justice through perjury and obstruction of justice.
These are public acts. And when committed by the chief law enforcement officer of the land, the one who appoints every United States district attorney, every federal judge, every member for the Supreme Court, the attorney general, they do become the concern of Congress. And that's why your judgment, respectfully, should rise above politics, above partisanship, above polling data.
This case is a test of whether what the founding fathers described as "sacred honor" still has meaning in our time 222 years after those two words, "sacred honor," were inscribed in our country's birth certificate, our national charter of freedom, our Declaration of Independence.
Every school child in the United States has an intuitive sense of the sacred honor that is one of the foundation stones of the American house of freedom, for every day in every classroom in America, our children and grandchildren pledge allegiance to a nation under God.
That statement is not a prideful or arrogant claim. It's a statement of humility. All of us as individuals stand under the judgment of God or the transcendent truths by which we hope finally to be judged. So does our country.
The presidency is an office of trust. Every public office is a public trust, but the Office of the President, is a very special public trust. The president is the trustee of the national conscience. No one owns the office of the president -- the people do.
The president is elected by the people and their representatives in the electoral college. And accepting the burdens of that great office, the president in his inaugural oath enters to a covenant, a binding agreement of mutual trust and obligation with the American people.
Shortly after his election and during his first few months in office, President Clinton spoke with some frequency about a new covenant in America. In this instance, let's take the president at his word that his office is a covenant, a solemn pact of mutual trust and obligation with the American people. Let's take the president seriously when he speaks of covenants, because a covenant is about promise making and promise keeping.
For it's because the president has defaulted on the promises he made, it's because he has violated the oaths he has sworn, that he has been impeached. The debate about impeachment during the constitutional convention of 1787 makes it clear that the framers regarded impeachment and removal from office on conviction as a remedy for a fundamental betrayal of trust by the president.
The framers had invested the presidential office with great powers. They knew that those powers could be and would be abused if any president were to violate in a fundamental way the oath he had sworn to faithfully execute the nation's laws.
For if the president did so violate his oath of office, the covenant of trust between himself and the American people would be broken. Today, we see something else that the fundamental trust between America and the world can be broken if a presidential perjurer represents our country in world affairs.
If the president calculatedly and repeatedly violates his oath, if the president breaks the covenant of trust he's made with the American people, he can no longer be trusted. And because the executive plays so large a role in representing our country to the world, American can no longer be trusted.
It's often said we live in an age of increasing interdependence. If that's true -- and the evidence for it is all around us, then the future will require an even stronger bond of trust between the president and the nation, because with increasing interdependence, comes an increased necessity of trust.
This is one of the basic lessons of life. Parents and children know it; husbands and wives know it; teachers and students know it; as do doctors, patients, suppliers, customers, lawyers, clients, clergy and parishioners.
The greater the interdependence, the greater the imperative of promise-keeping.
Trust, not what James Madison called the parchment barriers of laws, is the fundamental bond between the people and their elected representatives; between those who govern and those who are governed.
Trust is the mortar that secures the foundations of the American house of freedom. And the Senate of the United States, sitting in judgment on this impeachment trial should not ignore or minimize or dismiss the fact that that bond of trust has been broken, because the president has violated both his oaths of office and the oath he took before his grand jury testimony.
In recent months, it's often been asked: so what? What is the harm done by this lying under oath, by this perjury?
Well, what is an oath? An oath is an asking almighty God to witness to the truth of what you're saying. Truth telling, truth telling, is the heart and soul of our justice system. I think the answer would have been clear to those who once pledged their sacred honor to the cause of liberty. The answer would have been clear to those who crafted the world's most enduring written constitution.
No greater harm can come -- can come than breaking the covenant of trust between the president and the people, between the three branches of our government, and between our country and the world, for to break that covenant of trust is to dissolve the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice. And to break the covenant of trust by violating one's oath is to do grave damage to the rule of law among us.
That none of us is above the law is a bedrock principle of democracy. To erode that bedrock is to risk even further injustice. To erode that bedrock is to subscribe to a divine right of kings theory of governance in which those who govern are absolved from adhering to the basic moral standards to which the governed are accountable.
We must never tolerate one law for the ruler and another for the ruled. If we do, we break faith with our ancestors from Bunker Hill, Lexington, Concord to Flanders Fields, Normandy, Hiroshima, Panmunjom, Saigon and Desert Storm.
Let's be clear -- the vote you are asked to cast is in the final analysis a vote about the rule of law. The rule of law is one of the great achievements of our civilization for the alternative to the rule of law is the rule is the rule of raw power.
We here today are the heirs of 3000 years of history in which humanity slowly and painfully, and at great cost, evolved a form of politics in which law not brute force, is the arbiter of our public destinies.
We're the heirs of the ten commandments and the mosaic law, moral code for a free people, who having been liberated from bondage, saw in law a means to avoid falling back into the habits of slaves. We're the heirs of Roman law, the first legal system which peoples of different cultures, languages, races and religions came to live together to form a political community.
We're the heirs of the Magna Carta, by which the free men of England began to break the arbitrary and unchecked power of royal absolutism. We're the heirs of a long tradition of parliamentary development in which the rule of law gradually came to replace royal prerogative as the means for governing a society of free men and free women.
Yes, we're the heirs of 1776 and of an epic moment in human affairs when the founders of this republic pledged their lives, their fortunes and yes, their sacred honor to the defense of the rule of law.
Now we're the heirs of a tragic civil war which vindicated the rule of law over the appetites of some for owning others. We're the heirs of the 20th century's great struggles against totalitarianism in which the rule of law was defended at immense cost against the worst tyrannies in human history.
The rule of law is no pious aspiration from a civics textbook. The rule of law is what stands between us and the arbitrary exercise of power by the state. The rule of law is the safeguard of our liberties. The rule of law is what allows us to live our freedom in ways that honor the freedom of others while strengthening the common good.
Lying under oath is an abuse of freedom. Obstruction of justice is a degradation of law. There are people in prison for such offenses. What in the world do we say to them about equal justice if we overlook this conduct by the president?
Some may say, as many have in recent months, that this is to pitch the matter too high. The president's lie, it is said, was about a trivial matter; it was a lie to spare embarrassment about misconduct on a private occasion.
The confusing of what is essentially a private matter and none of our business with lying under oath to a court and a grand jury has been only one of the distractions we've had to deal with.
Senators, as men and women with a serious experience of public affairs, we can all imagine a situation in which a president might shade the truth when a great issue of national interest or national security is at stake. We've been all over that terrain.
We know the thin ice on which any of us skates when blurring the edges of the truth for what we consider a compelling, demanding public purpose.
Morally serious men and women can imagine the circumstances at the far edge of the morally permissible when, with the gravest matters of national interest at stake, a president could shade the truth in order to serve the common good.
But under oath for a private pleasure?
In doing this, the office of the president of the United States has been debased and the justice system jeopardized. In doing this, he's broken his covenant of trust with the American people.
The framers also knew that the office of the president could be gravely damaged if it continued to be unworthily occupied. That's why they devised the process of impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate.
It is in truth a direct process. If on impeachment the president is convicted, he's removed from office and the office itself suffers no permanent damage. If on impeachment the president is acquitted, the issue is resolved once and for all and the office is similarly protected from permanent damage.
But, if on impeachment the president is not convicted and removed from office despite the fact that numerous senators are convinced that he has, in the words of one proposed resolution of censure, "egregiously failed the test of his oath of office, violated the trust of the American people, and dishonored the office by which they entrusted to him," then the office of the presidency has been deeply and perhaps permanently damaged.
And that is a further reason why president Clinton must be convicted of the charges brought before you by the House and removed from office. To fail to do so, while conceding that the president has engaged in egregious and dishonorable behavior, that has broken the covenant of trust between himself and the American people, is to diminish the office of president of the United States in an unprecedented and unacceptable way.
Now, Senators, permit me a word on my own behalf and on behalf of my colleagues in the House. I want to clarify an important point. None of us comes to this chamber today without a profound sense of our own responsibilities in life and of the many ways in which we have failed to meet those responsibilities to one degree or another. None of us comes to you claiming to be a perfect man or a perfect citizen.
Just as none of you imagines yourself perfect, all of us, members of the House and Senate, know we come to this difficult task as flawed human beings under judgment. That is the way of this world -- flawed human beings must, according to the rule of law, judge other flawed human beings.
But the issue before the Senate of the United States is not the question of its own members' personal moral condition, nor is the issue before the Senate the question of the personal moral condition of the members of the House of Representatives.
The issue here is whether the president has violated the rule of law and thereby broken the covenant of trust with the American people. This is a public issue involving the gravest matter of public interest. And it's not affected one way or another by the personal moral condition of any member of either House of Congress or by whatever expressions of personal chagrin the president has managed to express.
Senators, we of the House don't come before you today lightly, and if you will permit me it is a disservice to the House to suggest that it has brought these articles of impeachment before you in a mean spirited or irresponsible way. That is not true.
We have brought these articles of impeachment because we're convinced in conscience that the President of the United States lied under oath, that the president committee perjury on several occasions before a federal grand jury. We have brought this articles of impeachment because we are convinced in conscience that the president willfully obstructed justice and thereby threatened the legal system he sworn a solemn oath to protect and defend.
These are not trivial matters. These are not partisan matters. These are matters of justice, the justice that each of you has taken a solemn oath to serve in this trial.
Some of us have been called Clinton-haters. I must tell you distinguished Senators, that this impeachment trial is not for those of us from the House, a question of hating anyone.
This is not a question of who we hate, it's a question of what we love.
And among the things we love are the rule of law, equal justice before the law and honor in our public life. All of us are trying as hard as we can to do our duty as we see it; no more and no less.
Senators, the trial is being watched around the world. Some of those watching, thinking themselves superior in their cynicism, wonder what it's all about.
But others know, political prisoners know, that this is about the rule of law, the great alternative to arbitrary and unchecked state powers. The families of executed dissidents know that this is about the rule of law, the great alternative to the lethal abuse of power by the state. Those yearning for freedom know this about the rule of law -- the hard, one structure by which men and women can live by their God-given dignity and secure their God-give rights in ways that serve the common good.
If they know this, can we not know it?
If across the river in Arlington Cemetery there are American heroes who died in defense of the rule of law, can we give less than the full measure of our devotion to that great cause?
I wish to read you a letter I recently received that expresses my feelings far better than my poor words.
"Dear Chairman Hyde, my name is William Preston Summers. How are you doing? I am a third grader in room 504 at Chase Elementary School in Chicago.
"I'm writing this letter because I have something to tell you. I have thought of a punishment for the president of the United States of America. The punishment should be that he should write a 100-word essay by hand. I have to write an essay when I lie.
"It is bad to lie because it just gets you in more trouble. I hate getting in trouble. It's just like the boy who cried 'wolf' and the wolf ate the boy. It is important to tell the truth.
"I like to tell the truth because it gets you in less trouble. If you do not tell the truth, people do not believe you. It is important to believe the president because he is a important person. If you cannot believe the president, who can you believe? If you have no one to believe in, then how do you run your life?
I do not believe the president tells the truth any more right now. After he writes the essay and tells the truth, I will believe him again. (signed) William Summers."
Then there's a P.S. from his dad: "Dear Representative Hyde, I made my son William either write you a letter or an essay as a punishment for lying. Part of his defense for his lying was that the president lied. He's still having difficulty understanding why the president can lie and not be punished."
Mr. Chief Justice and Senators, on June the 6th, 1994, it was the 50th anniversary of the American landing at Normandy, and I went ashore at Normandy and walked up to the cemetery area where, as far as the eye could see, there were white crosses, Stars of David. And the British had a bagpipe band scattered among the crucifixes, the crosses, playing Amazing Grace with that pierceful, mournful sound that only the bagpipe can make.
And if you could keep your eyes dry you were better than I. But I walked up to one of these crosses marking a grave because I wanted to personalize the experience. I was looking for a name. But there was no name. It said, "Here lies in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God."
How do we keep faith with that comrade in arms? Well, go to the Vietnam memorial and the national mall and press your hands against the 58,000, a few of the 58,000 names carved into that wall and ask yourself how we can redeem the debt we owe all those who purchased our freedom with their lives. How do we keep faith with them?
I think I know. We work to make this country the kind of America they were willing to die for. That's an America where the idea of sacred honor still has the power to stir men's souls.
My solitary, solitary hope is that 100 years from today people will look back at what we've done and say, "they kept the faith."
Copyright © 1999 The Washington Post Company